CNN’s decision to hire and pay full-time Trump apologists -- supporters who are willing to go on air and defend Trump’s missteps -- has resulted in some of the most explosive and viral news segments of the election. But it’s also turned CNN’s election coverage into a series of ridiculous, uninformative screaming matches that mainstream bullshit in the name of “balance.”
Over the course of the 2016 election, CNN hired four Trump supporters -- Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Nell Hughes, Jeffrey Lord, and Corey Lewandowski -- to act as full-time Trump surrogates and defend their candidate on-air. CNN has defended its hirings by suggesting that surrogates like Lewandowski are needed to provide “balance,” especially after several of CNN’s traditional Republican commentators expressed their opposition to the GOP presidential nominee.
CNN’s decision to hire professional Trump apologists has made for some fascinating -- if not excruciating -- television. Their appearances frequently result in screaming matches, with hosts and other panelists trying desperately (and fruitlessly) to deal with the surrogates’ barrage of talking points, misdirection, and blind stubbornness. The Trump surrogates do a masterful job of avoiding being pinned down -- they change the subject, argue in circles, make things up, and generally do whatever they can to sidetrack any negative discussion about Trump.
So a segment about Trump’s hesitance to disavow David Duke turns into an absurd argument about whether Democrats used to support the KKK.
A segment on Trump’s attacks on Alicia Machado’s weight becomes a debate about whether it’s actually offensive to be called an “eating machine.”
And a segment about Trump’s recorded comments describing sexually assaulting women gets sidetracked into a decade-old smear about Hillary Clinton’s work as a court-appointed defense attorney in the 1970s..
By the end of most segments, everyone else on the panel is yelling, in shock, or has been flustered to the point of giving up.
This isn’t entirely the fault of the professional Trump surrogates. CNN pays them to be Trump apologists; their jobs depend on them defending their candidate regardless of how ridiculous it makes them sound. In other words, the network incentivizes them to be intractable.
That’s especially true in the case of Lewandowski, who is still effectively working for -- and, until recently, being paid by -- the Trump campaign while being employed at CNN. Lewandowski likely signed a non-disparagement agreement with the Trump campaign, meaning he can’t speak ill of his former boss on CNN even if he wanted to.
None of this is meant to suggest that Trump gets a free pass on the network. CNN’s Trump surrogates are regularly grilled and challenged, both by other panelists and by hosts.
And it all makes for highly entertaining reality television.
But for a news network, these segments are a disaster. These constant screaming matches offer nothing of substance to audiences who want to make sense of the election. Instead, they desensitize voters to bullshit -- elevating ridiculous and even blatantly dishonest defenses of Trump’s campaign into mainstream political debates. The presence of CNN’s Trump surrogates makes any segment they appear in more likely to devolve into the kind of absurdist bickering that makes many viewers tune out or give up on being politically engaged altogether.
If CNN wants to feature pro-Trump voices in its election coverage, it can rely on guests who actually work for the campaign. But rewarding professional bullshit artists like Hughes, McEnany, Lord, and Lewandowski with CNN salaries and job titles sets a dangerous precedent for a news network: a move toward “balance” even when it comes at the cost of reasonable, useful coverage.